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A subtle shift took place on our local quarter-mile tracks last weekend.

Through the season of league dual and tri meets, track and field coaches emphasize team results. They move kids around among the various events to maximize team points. Starting with the league championships, though, individual performances take on more importance as the top athletes qualify for progressively higher rungs of competition.

That trend continues Saturday at the Redwood Empire Track Meet at Piner High School, where kids from the North Bay League, Sonoma County League, Marin County Athletic League and Humboldt Del Norte Athletic League vie for spots at the North Coast Section Meet of Champions.

As always, Maria Carrillo figures to have as many contenders as anyone. The Pumas’ best shots this year include sprinter Ian Herculson, middle-distance runner Isaiah Smith, distance runners Carson Kimball and Scott Kruetzfeld, and pole vaulter Tom E on the boys side, and sprinter Amani Baker, hurdler Habibah Sanusi and high jumper Rebecca Plattus among the girls. The Carrillo relay teams are strong, too.

“It’s always interesting because as the stakes get higher, you’re running with only fast people now,” assistant coach Ian Myers said at practice Thursday. “Whereas we can get easily trapped in the league meets, where you’re running a fast kid against a kid who’s not. (Now) you have eight lanes of fast kids running. Usually it has a real positive effect, because it brings out ‘fast.’ ”

And before head coach Greg Fogg fires off a passionate letter, this would be a good place to remind readers that team results will be logged at the Redwood Empire meet, too. The Maria Carrillo boys are defending Redwood Empire champions, and the girls won the meet 10 times in 12 years between 1999 and 2010, but Fogg isn’t sure the Pumas have enough depth to get past the top Marin County teams this year.

Individually, one of Fogg’s best hopes is Herculson. According to Jim Crowhurst’s blog at redwoodempirerunning.com, the senior sprinter had the fastest times in the Empire this year in both the 100 meters (11.11 seconds in a fully automatic timed run) and 200 meters (21.84 seconds, hand-time converted).

Herculson has scouted his competition for the weekend, especially the strong cast of sprinters from Marin Catholic. He believes he is rated just behind two of them in the 100, just ahead of them in the 200.

“So you get butterflies in your stomach,” Herculson said. “And the four-by-100 (relay), it’s super close. That’ll probably be the best race. I know my competition. I’m really excited for it. I just want to kind of prove myself and show how far I’ve come as an athlete.”

Herculson’s confidence shows his evolution at Maria Carrillo. Before freshman year, baseball was his sport. But he started to question how much he loved it.

“I always had this feeling of I’m kind of getting bored with the sport,” he said. “And I’d always been kind of quick out there. But you really can’t show it, because it’s 90 feet between bases.”

So he tried track and proved to be pretty good. Or so he thought, until he went with teammates to the NCS Meet of Champions as a sophomore. Herculson didn’t think he was competing at the meet, which takes place in imposing Edwards Stadium on the UC Berkeley campus.

“And he went down there, and he’s like blown away by the enormity of it,” Myers said. “He’s scared to death. And we had a kid that was hurt. We’re like, ‘Ian, you’re gonna suit up and go here. It’s go time.’ He’s got a Dr. Pepper in one hand. For him to go from that to being a very clear team leader the last couple years has been really fun. And he is. He gets warmups started. He tells kids where they need to be, and he’s on it.”

Fortunately for Herculson, he had great role models to learn from at Carrillo — older runners like Herbie Polk (who returned as a coach after graduating), Dante Hay and Alex Netherda, the Press Democrat’s 2014-15 Large School Boys Athlete of the Year.

At a compact 5-foot-6, 165 pounds, Herculson isn’t as big or as obviously strong as many sprinters. Some of them look like, and in fact are, football players. Yet Fogg calls him a natural in the sport.

“He is just super gifted,” the coach said. “He’s got some lightning in his legs.”

Herculson claims he has “no upper-body strength,” but he works diligently on his legs in the weight room. Still, he knows he can’t generate as much power as some other sprinters, so technique becomes paramount.

“Form is huge,” said Herculson, who plans to attend Arizona State next year and might try to join the track and field team as a walk-on. “Some of my competitors have awful form. It’s unfortunate, because I know if they could fix their form they’d be probably faster than I am. I mean, in the 100 it literally takes every bit to go right to run a good race. Which is the downside, too, because if you’re late, then you just lost. There’s no making it up.”

“One thing that I look up to him (for) is his start,” said Smith, the Pumas’ 400-meter whiz and Herculson’s teammate in the 4x100 relay. “Because in the 100 meters you have to get out fast, and he just has an excellent start. I mean, I don’t think there’s anybody close to him in the league in his start.”

But Fogg says it would be a mistake to classify Herculson purely as a technician, because that would be to ignore one of his strongest traits.

“Ian is just fiercely competitive,” Fogg said. “I mean, he seems like a nice calm guy. But you’ll see it. And especially if you’re competing against him, you’ll be like, ‘Yeah, that guy can step up.’ I don’t care what the time is. If you’re going against Ian, he’ll find some way to out-lean you.”

Herculson has a clean-cut appearance, but he does sport some ink. His mother is Japanese-American, and he has a tattoo of some Japanese characters on his left calf. Herculson said it represents the idea of kaizen, which translates as “continuous improvement or change for the better.” It’s the perfect symbol for a runner who is trying to shave another tenth of a second off his time as he heads into the big year-end races.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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